Book excerpts, short stories, serialized stories, book reviews, and essays about the craft of writing. This is where I’ll post stuff when I’m wearing my author hat.

A Legal But Highly Addictive Drug

One of the most enjoyable parts of writing is when a character takes a story in an unexpected direction. I just had that happen in a big way. If you are not a writer, you might not know what I mean. It might seem that the actual writing process should have no surprises. You work out the basic plot, you flesh it out with some additional detail, then you sit down and type the story, filling in the prose like a painter painting by numbers. And for some writers, it might actually work like that.

But for many of us, not so much. Writing, at least really good writing, means getting yourself into the heads of the characters. Their actions, reactions, dialog, all become lived things, organically created from events as they unfold. And that means sometimes a meticulously planned plot point gets tossed out the window when it bumps up against how your character would plausibly react in a given situation.

When this happens, when your plot comes into conflict with your characters, the only choice (in my opinion) is to defer to the character and change the plot. The most carefully fashioned story will collapse if the characters are not believable, if the reader cannot identify with them. If your characters don’t want to follow your plot outline, they are sending you a message: You are writing the wrong story.

This just happened to me.

The Apocalypse Contract has reached a critical juncture in the plot. Multiple threads are coming together, secrets are being revealed, and we are about to dive into the exciting race to the conclusion. My main characters are well defined, and I know where the story is going.

Then, as I start a new chapter, I think: Maybe I should write this one from the perspective of this minor character. So I do.

Holy crap.

Suddenly this minor character has taken on a critical importance. Their inner monologue reveals capabilities and secrets nobody else suspects. It opens up potential for a whole new direction going forward, and the concept is TOTALLY FREAKING AWESOME.

You know that feeling you get when you’re reading a book or watching a movie and it hits you with a plot twist that you weren’t expecting, but it feels totally right and punches you in the gut with a visceral feeling of satisfaction?

Yeah… writers get that too. And if anything, its far more intense when creating a story than reading it. It’s why we do it. Basically we are junkies that have found a legal drug. Honestly, if you are not writing because you are addicted to writing, you are probably doing it for the wrong reasons (there are easier ways to get a paycheck).

That’s all I got.

The Immortality Contract

Here is the first chapter of a new story idea I’m kicking around. Current working title is ‘The Immortality Contract’, but that might change. Also not sure how long this is going to be. Anyway… here it is. I hope you enjoy it, and as always, feedback is very welcome.



Sydney wasn’t accustomed to having aliens materialize in her apartment. In fact, visitors of any kind tended to set her on edge, so the sudden appearance of this strange pair left her nearly catatonic.

“Have you considered our proposal?” the being on the left asked. At least she assumed it was the one on the left. It’s mouth hadn’t actually moved, so she couldn’t be sure.

She tried to answer, but only a breathy gasp escaped.

“We are unfamiliar with the meaning of that vocalization. Was it agreement? We can begin your orientation immediately if so.”

Sydney sucked in a quick breath and finally found her voice. “Oh my god you’re real! You’re really aliens. You’re real, and you’re in my apartment.” Her eyes swept back and forth from one alien figure to the other. “And you’re naked. Why are you naked?” She realized it was a ridiculous question after she asked it. Why should she assume aliens would wear clothes? They looked more like genderless department store manikins than people anyway, so it wasn’t like the nudity was shocking. Maybe that was it. Manikins should have clothes on them. That was their purpose. A naked manikin was a job unfinished. A job once started should always be finished.

The aliens turned toward each other, their heads moving as if they were using their empty manikin eyes to confirm their nudity. Clothing blossomed on their skin, appearing in patches, then growing together to form full garments. “Do you find this acceptable?” the alien on the right asked. He was now wearing a gray pinstriped business suit, alligator shoes, and a derby hat. His companion wore a light blue polo shirt, beige cargo pants, and sandals. The polo shirt still had a price tag on it, reinforcing the manikin motif.

“I don’t like people in my apartment,” she managed to sputter.

“As we were telling you during our phone conversations, we are not people. We are extraterrestrial aliens. You seemed unconvinced. We find a physical manifestation can be persuasive.”

“Yeah, well… go manifest yourself over there on the sofa. You’re… all up in my personal space, and it’s freaking me out.” She hadn’t told them to get out. Why hadn’t she told them to get out?

The aliens walked around the coffee table and sat on her sofa. Sydney relaxed slightly but remained in her reading chair, hands clenched on the chair’s arms. Her phone was still lying on the floor where she had dropped it, the call still connected. Her cat Pixel was still sleeping on top of his favorite bookcase, completely undisturbed by the alien incursion.

Moments earlier, Sydney had been engaged in a phone interview with potential consulting clients, or so she thought. Sure, they seemed a bit odd, with their stilted speech and off the wall questions, but they wouldn’t be her first weirdo clients. When you only accept telecommuting jobs, you have to cast your net a bit wider. She was willing to overlook a lot of weirdness as long as the checks cleared.

“As I was saying, employment with us would involve unparalleled health benefits. We can free you from all biological maladies, including the terminal condition you currently suffer from.” It was the casually dressed alien that had said this. Well, she assumed so, since he was gesturing with his hand while the speech was happening. Was ‘he’ the correct pronoun? Did aliens have gender? They sounded male. Actually, they sounded like radio announcers. Maybe TV anchormen.

“How… how do you know about my cancer? That should be confidential. You could get in a lot of…” She remembered she was dealing with space aliens that could materialize inside locked rooms. Potential legal trouble over HIPAA health privacy violations was probably not something they worried about.

“Our data collection methods are proprietary and not pertinent to this negotiation,” Business Suit Alien answered. “We are prepared to compensate you financially at your current billing rate for the duration of the contract. We will also provide medical benefits as previously stated. In return we require your exclusive services for the duration of the contract. Your duties will include the piloting and maintaining of a single occupancy spaceship for the delivery of materials to a star approximately 15 light years from your solar system. You call it Ross 154.”

Sydney sat in stunned silence for several long seconds. “Space. You want me to pilot a spaceship. In space. You’re space aliens. That’s what you do. Why would you need me?”

The aliens looked at each other for a moment before Casual Alien answered. “We cannot function in isolation. Our species has evolved to require constant contact with others of our kind. This project requires a small vessel with a single occupant. Your species is better suited to such work.”

“Don’t be so sure about that. Most people go nuts if you lock them away by themselves for too long. How long are we talking about? You said fifteen light years. How fast can this ship of yours go? You’ve got some sort of fancy, faster than light warp drive, right?”

Her cat Zoe sauntered into the living area. Zoe sniffed Casual Alien’s right foot, rubbed against his leg, then sprawled under the coffee table and promptly fell asleep. If this was an invasion, it seemed her cat’s were prepared to fully accept Earth’s new alien overlords.

“We are constrained by physical laws,” Business Suit Alien replied. “The ship can approach but not exceed the speed of light. It will require approximately sixteen years, eight months, twenty-four days to reach it’s destination, accounting for acceleration and deceleration time. A return trip requires an equivalent amount of time.”

“More than thirty years round trip? I’d be in my late sixties before I’m back! Maybe you should have led with your pension plan.”

“Our health benefits package can alleviate all biological maladies. This includes the effects of aging.”

“So you’re saying I won’t age at all during the trip. What about after the job’s over? How long do I get to keep these health benefits?”

“We have no plan to rescind any benefits upon conclusion of our relationship or any time after that. You will cease to age for as long as you live.”

Sydney struggled to get her head around the immensity of what they were suggesting. “Holy. Shit. You realize you’re talking about immortality, right? Forget the pension plan. Lead with the immortality next time.”

“We’ve learned that some humans find the prospect of an indefinitely long lifespan disturbing.” Business Suit Alien shifted his position, crossing his right leg over his left and revealing a ‘Size 10’ sticker on the bottom of his right shoe. Sidney found herself staring at the sticker and wondering where the aliens shopped.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that too. I don’t really get it though. I would rather choose when and how I go out than have it creep up on me without any say in the matter.”

“Then our offer is acceptable? We can begin your orientation immediately if so.”

“Now hold on a minute. I didn’t agree to anything yet. There’s a lot to discuss. I’ll admit it’s tempting, but thirty years alone in space would probably drive anyone crazy, me included. I need details before I decide anything.” Was she really doing this? Was she negotiating a consulting contract with aliens?

“Our research indicates you are uniquely suited to this job. You have the analytical problem solving skills we need, the ability to learn quickly, and you shun contact with others of your kind. You rarely leave your domicile, and then only for critical tasks such as your recent hospital visit.”

“Well, yeah, you got me pegged, I’m a loner. But that doesn’t mean I can handle a thirty year stint in solitary confinement. How big is this ship? What sort of entertainment can I bring along? Can I bring my cats? I assume there’s no Netflix on this crate.”

“The ship is an oblong spheroid approximately one hundred and sixty meters long and ninety meters in diameter. We will create living quarters that approximate your current domicile. You can bring as much digitally stored entertainment as you wish. We can simulate your computers and electronic equipment using shipboard systems. We have no plans to accommodate other lifeforms beyond yourself. Contact with terrestrial entertainment sources will be impossible once the ship is in flight.”

“Huh. Approximate my current domicile you say. As much as I like my apartment, I’m not renting a one room studio because I like cozy spaces. I was hoping for an upgrade in that department. Also, if I can’t bring my cats, I think that’s a deal breaker.” She looked at Zoe, still curled up under the coffee table. “And they get full health benefits too. I don’t think I could handle them dropping dead on me halfway through the trip.”

The aliens looked at each other. Was that just for show, or were they communicating when they did that? “We can adjust the parameters of your living space,” Casual Alien stated, “but the issue of additional lifeforms will require consultation with our peers.”

“OK, well, check on that and get back to me. About that digital entertainment… I can really bring as much as I want? This ship includes USB 3.0 ports or what?”

“Current ship design would allow for approximately four point seven petabytes of archived data storage before impinging on other ship functions. We can interface with any storage medium you choose to bring.”

“Did you say four point seven petabytes? As in more than four million gigabytes? OK, so no worries there. I guess that leaves us with pay. If you want to lock me into a long term commitment like this, we need to adjust for future wage inflation, opportunity cost, that sort of thing… let’s say $150 per hour.”

“That would be acceptable,” replied Business Suit Alien.

“And it sounds like this is a 24×7 on-call sort of gig, so I’ll need to bill all those hours, not just forty a week.”

The aliens did their sidelong look thing for a few seconds. “That exceeds our current allocated budget.”

“I can go a bit lower. How about one forty per hour.”

“We could pay you $50 per hour, payable in monthly installments to an interest bearing account over the duration of the assignment. Funds would be made available to you upon your return.”

“Sure that works. Not like I would have anywhere to spend it until then. But $50 is too low. I could do $125.”

“We are willing to increase our offer to $75 per hour.”

“one twenty and not a penny lower.”

“We can increase our offer to $80 per hour.”

“I don’t think you quite understand what ‘not a penny lower’ means.” Sydney crossed her arms and tried to look determined.

“We understand the human tradition of haggling,” Business Suit Alien replied, “It is your turn to counter with a lower offer.”

“Fine. One hundred and nineteen dollars per hour.” She tapped her foot to show her impatience.

“We counter with $81 dollars per hour.”

“Wait a minute… you’re just matching my moves dollar for dollar until we meet at $100 per hour, aren’t you.”

“$100 dollars per hour is an acceptable rate. If you are in agreement, we could begin your orientation.”

“OK, fine, whatever, one hundred per hour it is… but you still have to get back to me about my cats.”

The aliens looked at each other for perhaps the longest interval yet. “We will contact you again in one week’s time.” They shimmered out of existence as enigmatically as they had appeared.

Sydney sat in her reading chair for several minutes before moving. Finally, she picked up her phone from the floor. The call had ended. She set her phone on the coffee table and scooped up Zoe. The cat complained but then quickly settled into her lap and fell back asleep.

“So what do you think, fuzz bucket? You prepared to become a space cat?”

Zoe’s only answer was a leisurely yawn.

The Bike Race (Max Synaptic – The Early Years)

 Max Synatowsky rode his bike toward the pier. It was early afternoon, so he was not the only young person there. The lake was a popular place to hang out on a weekend, and many of his schoolmates already lounged in the sweltering summer heat. The group had divided into noticeable cliques, the major division being those already in high school and those, like Max, who were yet to start. He pulled to a stop near a group he knew from the middle-school video club. They weren’t exactly friends, but they were not particularly hostile to him either, which was the most Max had come to hope for. Several of the video geeks nodded at him, acknowledging his arrival. Max took it as a positive sign.

“Nice bike, dickwad.”

Max recognized the voice. He turned toward the cluster of high school students and confirmed his suspicion. It was Timothy Brundy, loudmouth jock and bane of the student underclass. Tim was leaning on his own bike, an expensive looking ten-speed with curved-under handlebars and a shiny silver-blue paint job. One of his tires was probably worth more than Max’s entire bike.

“I bet it’s faster than yours,” Max responded. It was a ridiculous thing to claim. Max’s bike was an older three-speed. It was smaller. It had fat all-terrain tires instead of Tim’s skinny racing tires. He had wrapped sliver tape around some of the metal supports to hide the rust, and a cardboard box was bungee strapped to the carry rack over the back tire. It was the exact opposite of Tim’s sleek machine.

Tim laughed. “I’ll take that bet. How about we race. To the end of Lakeshore Drive and back. Loser forfeits his bike.”

Max looked around. Everyone was watching the exchange. He was beginning to regret his words… regret even coming to the lake. But backing down would be worse than losing. “We race around the gravel pit, and you’ve got a deal.”

Tim thought about it for a moment. “Sure, what the hell. Let’s do it.”

They lined up on Lakeshore Drive, one of the high school students stood in front holding a baseball cap in the air as she explained the rules. “The race will go down Lakeshore, turn onto Mill Road, go around the old gravel pit, and then onto Putnam Avenue and back here to the pier. The first one to cross the line back onto Lakeshore Drive is the winner. You can start when my hat hits the ground.”

Max took a deep breath. His heart pounded. Kids on either side shouted encouragement or taunts, but Max couldn’t make out who they supported. His eyes were laser focused on the hat.

“Get ready… get set… GO!” With a dramatic flourish, she tossed the hat down.

Tim shot off the mark with amazing speed. Max was only an instant behind, but he was already losing ground. He peddled furiously, quickly clicking through all three gears as Tim pulled away. When they reached the turn onto Mill Road, Tim was already three whole bike lengths ahead of him.

Max’s bike fishtailed as he flew off of the pavement of Lakeshore Drive onto the gravel of Mill Road. Ahead, he could see Tim slow as his thin racing tires lost traction. Max pumped his peddles with every bit of strength he could muster, and briefly he gained on his opponent. He had calculated correctly… his fatter tires actually gave him an advantage on this terrain.

Mill road straightened out for a stretch, and the gravel became more compact. Tim began to pull away again as his longer legs and greater strength made up for his thin tires. Max gave it all he could but gradually fell farther behind.

They reached the gravel pit, and the road began to curve again. It was crisscrossed with ruts, forcing Tim to slow down and allowing Max to gained ground. Three bikes lengths. Then two. Max was a tantalizing few feet behind when they finally reached Putnam Avenue. The two bikes hopped back onto pavement and began racing down the long straightaway toward the pier.

And that’s when that sleek racing bike showed its worth. Tim clicked through his final few gears and poured on the speed. He pulled away like Max was standing still. Max threw his last bit of strength into peddling. His lungs heaved. The muscles of his legs burned with exertion. But Tim continued to pull away.

It was now or never.

Max reached down with one hand, searching for the small switch under his seat. He clicked it, closing the circuit and sending an electrical current down the thin wire running to the cardboard box over his back tire. He frantically put his hand back on the handle bars as the solid fuel rocket engine ignited and the bike nearly leaped out from under him.

He had spent weeks constructing it. The fuel was a variation on the stuff he used in his model rockets, but this engine was much larger, encased in a big metal pipe rather than a small cardboard tube. He had welded it securely to the frame of his bike and then careful concealed it with the cardboard box. The rocket motor roared, and he was suddenly gaining ground on Tim.

Tim, oblivious to what was happening behind him, tucked himself low over his handlebars and continued peddling. Max held his handlebars in a death grip as his speed quickly increased, any thought of trying to peddle his own bike forgotten as he simply fought to maintain his balance. He caught a quick glimpse of Tim’s shocked expression as he rocketed past.

Max flew down Putnam, still accelerating. The rocket should have burned out by now, he was sure of it, but he kept gaining speed. The pier was quickly approaching, and the shouts of his schoolmates could be heard even over the roar of the rocket motor. He lifted his hand to wave them away, warn them that he couldn’t stop, but had to quickly grab the handlebars again as the bike wobbled. People dove out of his way as he reached the end of Putnam Avenue, shot across Lakefront Drive, and onto the pier. He rattled across the boards of the pier, down its entire length, then off the end. He finally let go of the bike as it hit the water, his body briefly skipping across the lake’s surface like a large stone thrown by a mischievous giant. He thrashed for a moment in the water before standing up, realizing it was only waist deep.

Max half swam, half walked toward the shore. Partway there, his foot snagged his bike. He dragged it with him the rest of they way. When he emerged from the water he was immediately surrounded by a crowd of yelling youngsters. He walked past them to the beginning of the pier where Tim had finally arrived.

Tim looked angry. Max waited for him to speak, to accuse him of cheating, but Tim remained silent. He was looking at the cheering crowds around Max.

This is it, Max thought, this is what winning feels like. He soaked it in, his gaze drifting from face to face. People who wouldn’t have given him the time of day only twenty minutes earlier. He finally turned and addressed Tim.

“I’ll take my bike now.”

The World is Ending… AGAIN

Why do we love apocalyptic fiction so much?  I don’t know, but we do, and I love writing it. A probably unhealthy number of the stories in my idea file deal with the end of the world in one form or another.  Perhaps its because the apocalypse offers so many possibilities for regular people to become unexpected heroes.  My latest project is no exception.  I say ‘latest’, but really this is an idea I’ve had in outline form for years now, I just recently wrote the opening chapter.  That is sort of a pivotal point… once I’ve committed actual narrative to an idea, it becomes ‘real’ to me.  It crosses over from an idea to a ‘project’… something I’m actually committed to finishing someday.  As with my other apocalyptic stories (like The Bolachek Journals), the hero is an ‘average person’ who finds himself thrust into the role of being the world’s savior.  In the Journals, I explored how an MIT engineering student might apply his unique skills toward saving humanity from a zombie apocalypse.  In this new project, a middle aged project manager must use his organizational skills to save humanity from… well, how about you read on and find out what.